A cult can be defined not just in a religious context, but also as a” usually nonscientific method or regimen claimed by its originator to have exclusive or exceptional power in curing a particular disease.” After ~20 years of researching this area, I have come to suspect that much of alternative medicine resembles a cult – a bold statement, so I better explain.

One characteristic of a cult is the unquestioning commitment of its members to the bizarre ideas of their iconic leader. This, I think, chimes with several forms alternative medicine. Homeopaths, for instance, very rarely question the implausible doctrines of Hahnemann who, to them, is some sort of a semi-god. Similarly, few chiropractors doubt even the most ridiculous assumptions of their founding father, D D Palmer who, despite of having been a somewhat pathetic figure, is uncritically worshipped. By definition, a cult-leader is idealised and thus not accountable to anyone; he (yes, it is almost invariably a male person) cannot be proven wrong by logic arguments nor by scientific facts. He is quite simply immune to any form of scrutiny. Those who dare to disagree with his dogma are expelled, punished, defamed or all of the above.

Cults tend to brain-wash their members into unconditional submission and belief. Likewise, fanatics of alternative medicine tend to be brain-washed, i.e. systematically misinformed to the extend that reality becomes invisible. They unquestioningly believe in what they have been told, in what they have read in their cult-texts, and in what they have learnt from their cult-peers. The effects of this phenomenon can be dramatic: the powers of discrimination of the cult-member are reduced, critical questions are discouraged, and no amount of evidence can dissuade the cult-member from abandoning even the most indefensible concepts. Internal criticism is thus by definition non-existent.

Like religious cults, many forms of alternative medicine promote an elitist concept. Cult-members become convinced of their superiority, based not on rational considerations but on irrational beliefs. This phenomenon has a range of consequences. It leads to the isolation of the cult-member from the rest of the world. By definition, critics of the cult do not belong to the elite; they are viewed as not being able to comprehend the subtleties of the issues at hand and are thus ignored or not taken seriously. For cult-members, external criticism is thus non-existent or invalid.

Cult-members tend to be on a mission, and so are many enthusiasts of alternative medicine. They use any conceivable means to recruit new converts. For instance, they try to convince family, friends and acquaintances of their belief in their particular alternative therapy at every conceivable occasion. They also try to operate on a political level to popularize their cult. They cherry pick data, often argue emotionally rather than rationally, and ignore all arguments which contradict their belief system.

Cult-members, in their isolation from society, tend to be assume that there is little worthy of their consideration outside the cult. Similarly, enthusiasts of alternative medicine tend to think that their treatment is the only true method of healing. Therapies, concepts and facts which are not cult-approved are systematically defamed. An example is the notion of BIG PHARMA which is employed regularly in alternative medicine. No reasonable person assumes that the pharmaceutical industry smells of roses. However, the exaggerated and systematic denunciation of this industry and its achievements is a characteristic of virtually all branches of alternative medicine. Such behaviour usually tells us more about the accuser than the accused.

There are many other parallels between a  cult and alternative medicine, I am sure. In my view, the most striking one must be the fact that any spark of cognitive dissonance in the cult-victim is being extinguished by highly effective and incessant flow of misinformation which often amounts to a form of brain-washing.

39 Responses to Alternative medicine, is it a cult?

  • Agreed. I have thought for some time that the most dangerous aspect of homeopathy is the underlying philosophy There’s a lot of circular reasoning. So for example, a lack of reaction after a homeopathic remedy is interepreted as meaning that the remedy was not the correct one, or the illness is deeper rooted and needs a stronger (in this case more dilute) remedy. A bad reaction or worsening of symptoms after a homeopathic remdy is interpreted as a good sign – they call it a herx reaction, or a healing crisis. There’s really no way out – once you’ve accepted the philosophy. Often people turn to alternatives, as I did at first, when medicine is of little help in dealing with a chronic condition. But once people become ‘true believers’, rationality is thrown out of the window and the fundamentally anti – scientific mentality seems to take root.

    • that’s right! if you get worse, it’s a healing crisis; if you get better, it’s the effect of the remedy; if nothing happens at all, a homeopath will say that without his treatment, you would have deteriorated. it’s a fool’s paradise.

      • Somebody challenged me to name a single authentic cure by medicine. Needless to say they rejected the ones I suggested because, for example, antibiotics only “suppress the symptoms”. As long as you’re a germ theory denialist, I guess.

        It’s probably time for another overview article bringing the state of knowledge up to date. A lot of homeopaths don’t seem to realise that “like cures like” is not unproven, it is actually refuted, because it is explicitly based on a claim in respect of chinchona which is proven to be entirely wrong – the mechanism of action of chinchona is pretty well understood and it is entirely different from the mechanism proposed by Hahnemann. This is not new knowledge I agree but it is worth stating in a systematic way. So many red herrings have been trailed and refuted that over the last few years they have actually removed some significant areas of residual uncertainty. The change from “it could be that” to “it is that” followed by proof that no, it is not, narrows the remaining field of doubt.

  • I’ve been thinking about this too as I’ve been writing about the cancer quack Stanislaw Burzynski, who has a real cult of personality around him. I wonder if you think that coercion (a classic element of a cult) is present in alt med? I think that the cancer patients who end up at Stan’s clinic are at enough of a disadvantage that while they are not coerced, they are offered a deal that they can not reasonably (or irrationally, as the case may be) refuse. Actually, I’ve seen cases of patients who, extended the lifeline, when they can’t pay, be cut off from their “only hope of salvation.” Hm… Good post. Now I’m sad again. 🙂

  • I’ve been thinking about this recently as well with regard to homeopathy.

    I first thought there might be a similarity between the homeopathic interview with the client and the Catholic confession. Then I thought the sugar pills, consumed in a slightly ritual manner were a bit like the Eucharist. Then loads of other things started falling into place. Water containing some ephemeral essence when prepared by an initiate sounds a bit like the Holy Ghost or passage of grace. More fundamentally; illness, or dis-ease as they like to call it, is presented as a problem in your life force, a bit like sin, a sin from which the homeopath offers redemption, though ceremonial consumption of a spiritual residue. The original practice of banging the remedy on leather bound bible, a book which has been used for other magical purposes, such as predicting the future by reading a random verse, adds even more weight to this interpretation.

    So arguably homeopathy is more of an eccentric Christianity derived crypto-religion, concealed by outwardly medical practice, than a pseudoscientific medicine. In fact the whole lot is just a medicalised mashup of Christian ceremonial and renaissance alchemical magic with a thin veneer of pseudoscience on top to distract attention.

    • Matt, I think mysticism is one of the most essential ingredients of both traditional and New Age quackery.

      The more mysterious the better, as in the use of: leather-bound books, water memory, like cures like, posturing, hand-waving gestures (including waving burning incense), coercion, confessions, titles (appeal to authority), anti-science, references to Atlantis, the “magic power” of crystals, chakras, life-force, reincarnation, and of course quantum quackery (my favourite example of delusion that has gone so far out of control that it is way beyond therapeutic help).

      “… with a thin veneer of pseudoscience on top to distract attention.” Yes, conjuring tricks is what they are.

  • Of course, I’ve been saying this for years at TMR, only to be criticized for even using the word “cult”.

    Thanks, Doc:

    You do your profession proud.

    If you need evidence of this, or want to expand on revealing the phenomena, just ask.

  • I’m glad you wrote this. The signs are certainly there: the belief system’s reliance on the miraculous; the ‘shamanism’; the defensive reaction to rational criticism. And, not only do ‘believers’ take personal insult, but, because they are often ‘nice’ people, they are supported by sympathetic others – I call it ‘offence by proxy’: the defensive reaction on behalf of some other person(s) who would take offence to what you say, even though your arguer doesn’t, really. Certainly religion-like. Is it mere coincidence that, as mainstream religion declines, the numbers of CAM converts rise?

  • What an interesting idea. Couldn’t you argue most of this for conventional medicine?

    • “Couldn’t you argue most of this for conventional medicine?”

      What, where scientific knowledge is used to identify potential ‘remedies’ which are then tested through clinical trials specifically designed to try and prove the ‘remedy’ doesn’t work? Then only when that ‘remedy’ is shown under strictly blinded and regulated standards to still give statistically better healing results than placebos/no treatment is that ‘remedy’ accepted as effective?

      No there’s no fu$*%ng comparison whatsoever.

    • For example, almost every day there is a new (scientific) study that refines, or even overturns, a previously-held belief by most doctors. And then there is the case of the cause of ulcers, which was discovered (and awarded a Nobel Prize) for overthrowing previously-held ideas about ulcers.

      How could happen if conventional medicine is an echo chamber?

  • Agree completedly with this blog! As an example I have read a mail today:
    “Our experience is that clients should have a therapist where they should feel comfortable with to regarding having a positive treatment effect.”


  • Just recently a relative tried to convince me that essential oils could cure anything–even my M.S. among anything else I may have had during the past 60 years of my life and might have in the future (sinus infections, indigestion, sleeplessness, headaches, etc., etc.) She gave me a massage with a mixture of about 6 different oils that would make me relaxed, healthy, and cure what ever I had currently. During the night I felt very sick to my stomach and the odor of the oil was so gross had to strip my bed the next morning.

    I mentioned to her how I’d read about a baby who had died because her mother slathered him with lavender oil. She refused to because it because oils are NATURAL!

    I’ve heard the same “it’s safe because it’s natural” so many times. When a different another essential oil selling neighbor used this as a healthy reason to buy her oils I said, “Well, digitalis is ‘natural.’ So is hemlock.” She didn’t like that answer.

    My sister-in-law is a well educated herbalist who gave me this advice, “If someone tells you it’s safe because it’s ‘natural’ turn around and run away as fast as you can.”

    There was an iridologist giving a demonstration and for just the heck of it I had her check my eyes. I didn’t tell her about any of my health conditions. When I asked her about it she said my reproductive organs were healthy. Well…I’d had a total hysterectomy 15 years earlier!

  • I can relate a personal anecdote demonstrating another common trait AltMed shares with cults… BANISHMENT.

    In our family, our father has always been a promoter of alternative medicine. For the many years this was innocuous beliefs in prevention, home remedies and the power of vitamins. Not a big deal.

    Then he discovered The Internet.

    Now he was following sites like Natural News and even crazier places. He accually became a ‘deacon’ in some fake religion with the hope of bringing some bleach-based cure-all into Canada based on religious rights. Nobody in the family would bring up health issues in front of him for fear of getting a lecture against modern medicine.

    Then my little nephew was diagnosed with Type1 diabetes.

    Even though I begged my father to lay off my sister, he began mailing her AltMed printouts from internet sites. Then he started demanding that my nephew be sent to him to be ‘cured’. Obviously this wasn’t going to happen. This resulted in several family members (including myself) getting passive-aggressive ‘letters of forgiveness’ that stated no further contact was wanted.

    We were BANISHED. We were declared outsiders and The AltMed Cult would tolerate no dissension.

    • He fell for the MMS scam? Damn. That one really is unusually toxic. Jim Humble has the messiah complex but bad.

      • Completely. But not only that;

        – he cured his own prostrate cancer. Something to do with making his blood more acidic.
        – was a believer in curing things with silver (Colloidal silver?)
        – he was always a believer in the power of quartz crystals
        – took a vacation in Thailand and wrote it off as a ‘medical expense’ by getting some quack procedure done.
        – when sent links to QuackWatch, dismissed them as propaganda from a “medical industry shill” but never presented evidence of this fact.
        – fought to let farmers sell unpasteurized milk. Pasteurization was part of an Ontario Dairy Board conspiracy.

  • The phrase “sectarian medicine” has been used, with some justification. The biggest difference between medical science and SCAM is that medical science does not care about the origins of a treatment, the only question is whether it can be shown to work. SCAM has a double standard. Evidence supportive of SCAM or critical of medicine is accepted at face value, regardless of quality; evidence supportive of medicine or critical of SCAM is rejected, and only after rejection is it mined for things that can be used to undermine its conclusions.

  • So we’re saying here that alt med people tend to have closed minds and a narrowing of world view.
    To summarise.

  • When concept(s) cannot be proved by empirical evidence people who continue to believe them do so purely on faith. It naturally extends that people that have the necessary faith to believe something in the absence of evidence are going to act in a superior way to those that do not. Moreover, they are also going to try and convince others that they are missing out on whatever it is they happen to believe.

    Given that cults and alternative therapies both require faith it was always going to be a straightforward task to show them to be, to a greater or lesser extent, synonymous; the same is true for witchcraft, believing in ghosts, tarot cards, tealeaf reading, ouija boards, all of the established religions etc. etc.

    I do question how has this understanding helped – has it moved the debate forward? Does it teach us anything about addressing either religious fanatics or the dangers of seeking treatment for cancer from crystal healers? For me the answer is no and no.

    I would go on to ask, could making the comparison actually be unhelpful? I am positive, that an alternative practitioner could manipulate the comparison of their treatment to that of a cult as a lack of understanding in their treatment. Clearly, it proves nothing about the efficacy of the treatment but does add another misleading layer to the debate.

    To conclude, I know that, if I was in the debating chamber with an alternative practitioner and some genuinely undecided individuals, I would not wish to get sidetracked by this dead-end comparison as it moves the debate away from the real question – if you cannot show empirical evidence of success then is doesn’t work.

  • Nearly everything said in this article can be turned around and applied to conventional, allopathic medicine with great accuracy and relevance. Modern western medicine is more cult-like than many of the traditional systems of medicine. The difference is that mainstream western medicine has co-opted the concepts of “science” and “evidence” and throws these terms around continually, such that most people just hear those words and believe.

    But if you were to ask the majority of people in what way mainstream medicine is science- or evdience-based, you would probably get blank stares 99% of the time. That sort of unthinking blind faith is the epitome of cult behavior.

    Not to say that mainstream medicine does not have some value, but it is a system best avoided if one wants to stay healthy and alive.

  • Seems the standard argument for western medicine, and against other forms, is the idea of formal placebo-controlled clinical trials. As if one only need know that such a trail was conducted, and the results were positive, in order to trust some treatment.

    How can a layperson possibly know whether a particular trial was legit? Who paid for it, what data was distorted or omitted for financial gain, what prior trials went unpublished due to undesirable outcomes? It is a corrupt business and the published outcomes simply cannot be trusted.

    And yet most people believe, with something approaching fanaticism and/or with zero critical analysis, in the “science” behind vaccines, antidepressants and other psych drugs, efficacy of the entire range of big pharma products, the safety of surgical and diagnostic procedures, the safety of hospitals. Even though iatrogenic death from conventional medicine is one of the leading killers.

    • @Adam
      Your posts cover a lot of territory.
      It’s really not accurate to claim that modern medicine is ‘more cult-like than many of the traditional systems of medicine’. Sure, a lot of people trust in medicine on faith; few societies place enough emphasis on education in biological science, and many folk don’t know enough to do more than assume trained practitioners know what they’re doing. But no-one needs to look far to see just how much solid science underpins current understanding. Next time you’re in a (large) bookshop, take a look at the section devoted to medicine. Browse a few of the textbooks and see for yourself just how deep is our current knowledge of anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, microbiology, neurobiology, cardiology, immunology, haematology, ophthalmology and the many other subdisciplines that constitute biomedical science.
      This colossal base of human knowledge is not comprised of ideas individuals have pulled out of the back of their necks, nor of concepts that have been handed down by tradition. It’s the result of more than a century of genuine scientific progress, based on evidence that comes from experiments mostly designed to disprove individual hypotheses and thus place their findings on a robust footing. To suggest this stuff, which underpins all current approaches to diagnosis and treatment of illnesses, is the product of a cult mentality is, frankly, ridiculous.
      “Mainstream medicine…is a system best avoided if one wants to stay healthy and alive.” The sheer lunacy of this statement beggars belief. Please carry with you at all times a card saying “in case of illness or injury please do not bring me to any practitioner of mainstream medicine”. I hope you live a long and full life despite the card.
      Formal placebo-controlled trials are not the only basis for medicine to establish validity of its procedures. They are, however, in most cases, the least worst approach to testing if a particular treatment really shows an effect. ‘Big Pharma’ does itself no favours by sometimes using the same deceptive marketing tricks common to all types of manufacturing industries (VW and NOx spring to mind very strongly, just now) but there is no shortage of national regulatory authorities doing the job of determining which clinical trials are most trustworthy. Even they may not always be perfect, but they’re a darn sight better than relying on hearsay, anecdotes and arguments from antiquity.
      With such strongly worded opposition to the branch of technology known as medicine, I hope you will seriously practice what you preach and remain solidly supporting whichever branches of Big Snakeoil you favour, no matter what illness may afflict you. You might also contemplate other branches of technology, which — by your standards of comprehension — are also probably cults too. Never travel in a motor vehicle of any kind (they fail, crash and kill people), cross rivers by floating over in a state of transcendental karma, rather than trusting bridges (they collapse), and avoid all electrical appliances (they fail and catch fire). Use your inner chi to see you through life and trust no-one whose talents involve reason or evidence.

      • You sem to be arguing for the validity of scientific progress and discovery. I’m talking about the way health and disease are treated in modern industrialized medicine. And the way believers in this system take it for granted that this system is superior to all others.

        Sure the collective knowledge is vast, but that does not automatically translate to effective or safe or honest or sane treatment models.

        I never said throw out the whole system. For acute and emergency situations, modern western medicine cannot be beat. And there are obviously other areas where it has value. But in many ways c’mon it is a disaster.

        Also doctors are not trained in some sort of pure and objective science. They are indoctrinated into an ideology that guides them as much as anything else.

        And technology does not equal sophistication. I have complex chronic illness, and have had the most expensive and elaborate and hi tech testing done. Many times the results showed nothing obvious to grab onto, and the doc was reduced to a shrug of the shoulders. Meanwhile

        If you want to go after quackery, start with treatments and systems that promise to heal and end up killing or harming. Iatrogenic death from conventional medical treatment is a leading killer. Isn’t that the height of quackery?

        • @Adam
          “I never said throw out the whole system.” No? You said “…it is a system best avoided if one wants to stay healthy and alive.”
          Now you tell us ” For acute and emergency situations, modern western medicine cannot be beat. And there are obviously other areas where it has value.” This notion has come up before on these boards. Please enlighten us specifically where the boundary lies. Are all infectious diseases best dealt with by modern western medicine? Many of them are of iatrogenic origin: operating to fix someone’s dodgy heart valve, to remove an appendix, even to replace a hip joint — all part of modern western medicine — carry a measurable associated risk of infection.
          What about cancers? For most forms of cancer, modern western medicine has extended survival times almost magically, but the treatments are often unpleasant and they carry a lot of risks of iatrogenic disease consequences.
          Like a lot of people you fail to understand (a) that we all suffer from a terminal, sexually transmitted disease called ‘life’ and (b) that ‘modern western medicine’, as developed over the past century in particular, has succeeded in extending the average period of life by more than 100% from where it was in the year 1900. Iatrogenic disease is a sad consequence of some medical procedures, but it results from people applying treatments that are, on balance, more likely to effect cures than to do harm.
          The snakeoil medicine so heavily deprecated in Edzard Ernst’s posts never achieves real cures, it just mollifies those who are not seriously sick. And its potential harm is to instill confidence in witchcraft among people who may have ‘acute and emergency situations’ without realizing it.

          • As for cancer, you must be joking. Here are a few quotes that paint a different picture:

            “We have a multi-billion dollar industry that is killing people, right and left, just for financial gain. Their idea of research is to see whether two doses of this poison is better than three doses of that poison.”
            (Glen Warner, M.D. oncologist)

            “Many oncologists recommend chemotherapy for almost any type of cancer, with a faith that is unshaken by the almost constant failures”.
            (Albert Braverman, MD, “Medical Oncology in the 90s”, Lancet, 1991, Vol. 337, p. 901)

            “The majority of the cancer patients in this country die because of chemotherapy, which does not cure breast, colon or lung cancer. This has been documented for over a decade and nevertheless doctors still utilize chemotherapy to fight these tumors.”
            (Allen Levin, MD, UCSF, “The Healing of Cancer”, Marcus Books, 1990).

            “As a chemist trained to interpret data, it is incromprehensible to me that physicians can ignore the clear evidence that chemotherapy does much, much more harm than good.”
            (Alan Nixon, Ph.D., Past President, American Chemical Society)

            “Chemotherapy is basically ineffective in the vast majority of cases in which it is given”.
            Ralph Moss, PhD, former Director of Information for Sloan Kettering Cancer Research Centre

          • @Adam
            Quote mining can be fun and enlightening. I love good quotes. But quote mining does not dig up valid evidence.
            Here’s a really sweet and succulent cherry I picked especially for you, it goes so well with your accomplishments on this blog so far:

            “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
            Abraham Lincoln

  • You mentioned infectious disease. Modern mainstream medicine has antibiotics for acute infection. Ok good, we all know they can be life saving or just plain effective, though with obvious risks (damage to the gut, immune system, plus proliferation of drug-reistant bugs).

    But for complex chronic conditions, which often involve multiple body systems, mainstream medicine is basically useless, or worse. I have personal experience here, having been dx’d with some combination of chronic Lyme, parasitic, viral, fungal infections plus many other related issues. Mainstream docs could only come up with useless labels like Depression, IBS, Anxiety Disorder, etc.

    It was the “alt” practitioners — MDs practicing functional or integrative medicine, naturopathic doctors, and chinese medicine prac’s — that had the knowledge and inclination to sort out actual root causes and began to make a difference. Collectively these folks were the most knowledgeable and insightful of any professionals I have seen. The only intervention I responded to in a meaningful way was a sophisticated and comprehensive chinese herbal protocol, from a brilliant herbalist. I personally know a few other people with Lyme that have made real progress with him. No clinical trials, no toxic drugs, no obsessive focus on lab tests and data, just powerful plant based medicines with a lineage stretching back thousands of years.

    One woman was originally dx’d with MS. She was told the usual — no cure, drugs to manage the disease. After a few yrs of the chinese herbs, then switching to ayurvedic herbs and diet overhaul, she is doing very well.

    • @Adam
      “…having been dx’d with some combination of chronic Lyme, parasitic, viral, fungal infections plus many other related issues”. Thanks for identifying your problems. I bet there wasn’t a scrap of lab evidence for any of those infectious agents causing disease. Chronic Lyme disease in particular has become its own pseudo-science, with many people claiming to suffer from Lyme when there’s no evidence of past or present infection by any Borrelia sp.
      Chronic polysymptomatic conditions are often psychosomatic in origin (that’s not a mental illness: crying, blushing, goosebumps and sexual arousal are all psychosomatic too, though not usually chronic). I agree that “Depression, IBS, Anxiety Disorder, etc.” are essentially no more than labels. There is no known treatment guaranteed to help, and (genuine) research has found no clear cause of the problems.
      But these conditions unequivocally fluctuate in severity and often recover spontaneously. If your own recovery was associated with alt meds, you’ll of course assume the alt meds had an effect (the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy). Sadly, all you’re providing is anecdote, not evidence. Your antagonism to medicine and your cherry picked quotes about chemotherapy (twenty-five years old, when dated) show you’ve been converted to cult thinking. You are unlikely to be swayed by any amount of reason or evidence, and I understand the psychology. Regrettably, the things you say do not help the majority of your fellow humans.

  • “Quote mining can be fun and enlightening. I love good quotes. But quote mining does not dig up valid evidence.”

    Please. When a prominent insider speaks out against chemo and the monstrously powerful cancer biz, that means something.

    Have you got something more compelling to offer?

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